Conducting in Modern Worship

For some reason, when I began to think about conducting (music, not train), these are the images that came to my mind:

A traffic policeman bringing order out of chaos in a post-game exodus from the parking lot.   With aggresive gestures and intense facial expressions, he or she communicates to the anxious drivers when they can pull out or cross the intersection.    The gestures can indicate impatience, warning, or even the pleasure of letting us know it’s our turn.  

Those Top Gun, recruiting commercial scenes of the flight deck crew giving direction to the pilots, using their whole body in joyous abandon.    Like golfers using body english, they seem to vicariously join the aircraft in it’s dramatic propulsion over the edge of the carrier. 

The antics of an enthusiastic referee or umpire who makes their calls with theatrical flair and exaggerated gesture.   Great fun, if the calls are going our way.   Annoying and unnecessary, if the calls are against us.  

I think it’s fun–even funny–to imagine the music that might accompany a good traffic cop, the energy of a flight deck, or the flamboyance of an umpire.   And those images remind us of the power of gesture to communicate and inspire, which is of course the basis of conducting as a musical art.      Communicating needed musical information and inspiring musical excellence is a pretty good definition of conducting.

So the role of a conductor in a large musical ensemble is obvious.   But do those tasks still apply when we think about congregational song leadership?     Especially in a contemporary or blended context, the traditional role of songleader–using gestures to direct the congregation–seems to be diminishing and perhaps even disappearing.   Most of us have a friend (or maybe we are that friend) whose every conversational nuance is accompanied by some gesture of the hands.   It’s probably unconscious, and the gestures can be marvelously expressive, but after a while they might just be a distraction.   Could it be that our conducting gestures in worship are no longer expressive, but simply a distraction?

In contemporary worship the elements that lead congregational singing are typically the voice of the worship leader and the drive of the rhythm section.   But my experience tells me this is not radically different from traditional worship.   Those of us who grew up leading hymns learned from experience that no amount of arm-waving can overcome a determined organist, lethargic pianist, or insufficiently caffeinated choir.    And if the congregation was used to a certain tempo in a hymn–or observing some unwritten fermata–attempts to deviate from the familiar often frustrated the leader and confused the singers.    Even when choir and accompanists were enlisted in the effort to be musically correct (or just different), the results were usually mixed.    Compromises were a necessity, and perhaps even desirable (since the point is not to slavishly follow the letter of the score, but to have a meaningful shared musical experience.)  People follow what they hear (or have always heard) much more than what they see.

And we know that in many liturgical churches, the congregational music is unannounced (since everyone is assumed to have a bulletin and can read) and undirected (since everyone is assumed to follow the organ).   This would hopefully have the effect of allowing the singers to focus on the meaning of the text and on God who is the object of our worship (since everyone is assumed to show up at church with some inclination to do just that).   I don’t know if those assumptions are valid, but that approach can be refreshing to those of us with at least one foot in the revivalist tradition where the assumption is that everyone needs an injection of leader-induced direction and enthusiasm before they can adequately worship.

So back to the question at hand (pun intended).  What shall we worship leaders do now with our hands if we’re not playing a guitar or a keyboard–or if we’re still holding a hymnal with one but need something to do with the other?

Here is where I am at this point in my pilgrimage: when it comes to conducting congregational singing, less is more.    Unless I’m in a stadium, big gestures are a distraction.   Unless the song changes tempo mid-stanza, conducting every beat is wasted motion.    (I have noticed that when I stop conducting altogether, nothing bad happens.)    I probably still wave more than I need to, but that’s because old habits die hard.    The beginning of a stanza, the end of a stanza, the transition to the next chorus, tempo changes–those are the times when our instrumentalists or choir or praise team need our arms and hands, and those are the times when the congregation will follow our instrumentalists or choir or praise team as those folks follow our arms and hands.    And since I believe that group singing is what inspires group singing, my preference is for the voices of those ensembles and instruments to be heard more than the voice of the leader.

So in other words, I do believe in conducting that communicates needed musical information and inspires musical excellence (which might be defined differently for congregational worship–but that’s another article).

But I suggest we don’t need to be a traffic cop or umpire, and we especially don’t need to be a conductor who calls attention to themselves, whether our worship is traditional or contemporary or anywhere in between.   If we believe the text and music are what best lead the worshipers to understanding and emotion, perhaps our most effective conducting is to get out of the way.

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